Swedish culture customs and etiquette

Swedish culture, customs and etiquette

For most people the cultural history of Sweden starts and stops with ABBA. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find most Swedes have liberal, cosmopolitan, secular and environmentalist values by Anglo-Saxon standards.

This spares Western tourists from cultural clashes which might be imminent in other countries. However, some strict rules of etiquette are almost unique to Swedish people.

Though narcotics are not unheard of, most Swedes, old and young, are strongly opposed to them. Punishment is harsh, even for private-use possession, consumption, and intoxication itself. This also applies to cannabis.

When it comes to alcohol, Swedes are as double-natured as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Before work or driving, one beer is one too many, and drunk driving is a crime genuinely despised in Sweden.

However, drunkenness can be a regular part of many Swedish traditions (e.g., Midsommar, Valborg, etc.) keep this in mind if you abstain from alcohol. Some Swedes frown on people being sober at a party and reject excuses other than driving or pregnancy though no formal policy exists that would force one to drink against their will.

Salespeople, waiters and other service employees are usually less attentive than their colleagues in other countries, to respect customers’ privacy, except a short “hej” to entering customers. Customers are supposed to call for attention.

When entering a bus or another form of public transportation it is often considered unpolite to sit next to another person if there is another twin seat available.

Always ask if you should remove your shoes or not when entering a Swedish home. In most homes, it is customary to remove your shoes. Only on very rare occasions is the wearing of shoes indoors considered acceptable.

Generally, you will see a place by the front door of most homes where shoes are to be stored and can surmise from the presence of other guests’ shoes what is expected.

If you just assume that you are to take your shoes off upon entry, in most cases you will have done the right thing. Bringing indoor shoes to other people’s homes is customary among some. Most Swedish homes have wood flooring; wall-to-wall carpets are uncommon. Should you be dressed up and the host asks you to take your shoes off, then you should do that.

Despite rumours of the “Swedish sin”, Swedish people are generally not accepting of public nudity except at approved nudist beaches. Don’t go skinny-dipping in public beaches if you are more than about four years old.

Female toplessness is accepted but not very common (though prohibited at many public baths), breastfeeding in public is also accepted.

Male toplessness is accepted in the countryside and at the beach, but might be frowned upon in urban areas.

Greetings between men and women who know each other (e.g., are good friends, relatives, etc.) are often in the form of a hug. Swedes don’t cheek-kiss to greet but are aware that other cultures do. If you are a visitor from France and do cheek-kiss a Swede, they will return the favour but probably feel a bit awkward doing so.

Show up on the minute for meetings and meals, preferably five minutes before the set time. There is no “fashionably late” in Sweden. However, showing up early at a private invitation is considered rude.

If it’s acceptable to arrive, late it’s usually mentioned specifically (e.g., arrive after 5 pm) or there exist formal rules (some universities apply an “akademisk kvart”, an academic quarter hour, within which it is acceptable to arrive at lectures).

Gay & Lesbian travellers in Sweden

In regards to homosexuality, Sweden is quite tolerant of gay and lesbian travellers. In fact, as of May 2009, same-sex marriages have legal standing in Sweden.

The chance of facing extreme criticism or homophobia is low in Sweden, as the country has anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. Violence against gay and lesbians is relatively rare.